Magic can rarely exist in the face of investigation.
To many, the city of Tenino is filled with mystique and enchantment. The town’s swimming pool is an old sandstone quarry. The source of the name “Tenino” itself is shrouded in myth, with at least three heavily circulated origin stories.
But for Tenino City Historian Richard Edwards, uncovering the secrets of the Stone City only makes his residence there more magical.
Edwards grew up in Tenino and attended Washington State University for his bachelor’s degree in history. He worked in libraries from junior high through college, and went on to earn his master’s degree in librarianship from the University of Washington. He was employed by The Evergreen State College library for 23 years and spent a short time at Northeastern University in Oklahoma before working for the Washington State Library in Tumwater until retirement in 2010.
Edwards is a lifetime member of the South Thurston Historical Society and a member of the Washington State Historical Society. He was appointed to the position of Tenino city historian in 2018 by Mayor Wayne Fournier.
Recently, Edwards has been studying the Tenino Depot Museum’s collection of the earliest known photographs of Tenino. Previously, a photo from 1883 was believed to be the oldest of Tenino. In it, the Tenino hotel and depot are decorated to celebrate the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental line.
Research by Edwards uncovered that, in truth, one photo in the museum’s collection is even older.
It depicts four Chinese workers and another man standing on a Northern Pacific Railroad handcart in front of the Tenino Depot while one man leans against the handcart’s wheel and four others stand by the depot, off the tracks. On the back of that photo, a stamp reads “F. A. Smith’s Gallery” in Salem, Oregon, and “Hoyt, Photo.”
Hiram Hoyt, according to Edwards, worked as a photographer in California between 1873 and 1875 before he started his studio in Seattle in 1876. Hoyt then worked in Seattle until 1878 before moving to Texas. Therefore, Edwards believes the photo was taken during Hoyt’s two-year residency in Seattle, between 1876 and 1878. Edwards also observed lamp posts in the 1883 photo are not present in the Hoyt photo, so it is likely they were built after the Hoyt photo was captured.
Few things locally rival the depth of the quarry pool, though the profoundness of Edwards’ passion for historical research is a close contender.
On the subject of Tenino’s name, history buffs before him debunked the most popular theories yet failed to discover the name’s actual source. With the lack of an accurate origin story, myth only continued to circulate.
Finding the true story was the first big project Edwards took on after his appointment. His findings culminated in an entire book called “The Naming of Tenino.” Short answers aren’t his specialty. Though, when speaking with The Chronicle, he graciously summarized.
“The short answer is we’re named after a steamboat that operated on the Columbia and Snake rivers and it was named after a Native American band that lived down on the Columbia where the boat was built. So when they built the boat, they named it after that tribe, and the boat was owned by the railroad company who came here and built this depot,” Edwards said. “Everybody knew the railroad named us, so it must have something to do with the railroad. And then they just kind of made things up after that.”
Putting together all the pieces to build his case took Edwards time and effort, but the reward lies in enlightening others to the richness of Tenino’s history. Without his title of city historian, he would not have had access to a lot of the necessary information for his research.
Requesting files from other institutions without the title of city historian, he noted, is a lot more difficult. It adds a layer of professionalism to his projects, and it increases community access to the knowledge he shares. Through the City of Tenino, he has an official website along with a Facebook and email account.
Edwards is Tenino’s first appointed historian, and one of the few city historians in the United States. And now that there has been an official historian, it’s hard to imagine he will be the last.
“The next mayor might have an opinion on who should be the historian, and that might or might not be me. And if it wasn’t me, I would be OK with that. And if it was, I’d be OK with that. I think the more historians we have, the better,” Edwards said.
His work preserves the history of the region, state and country, uncovering long-lost truths about small town America. But the focus, of course, always centers around Tenino, of which he called himself “definitely a fan.”
Rich Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his facebook page is called “Tenino History.” More information can be found on the City of Tenino website under the section “Community” on the city historian page.